The Navy Is Hacking Wetsuits for Arctic Warfare

From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno and Dr. Michael Strano try out neoprene wetsuits at MIT’s athletic center. From left, graduate student Anton Cottrill, Dr. Jacopo Buongiorno and Dr. Michael Strano try out neoprene wetsuits at MIT’s athletic center. Susan Young / Office of Naval Research

When it comes to diving in frigid water, there’s a big difference between a SEAL and a seal. All the pull-ups and pistol squats in the world won’t turn the one into the other. That’s a challenge for a U.S. military increasingly concerned about countering Russian naval activity in the Arctic. So the Navy, working with researchers at MIT, is developing a new method for treating wetsuits that could extend the amount of time troops can spend in freezing water from minutes to hours.

Here’s how it works. Wetsuits are made of neoprene, a material that functions a lot like animal blubber. Neoprene is full of little air pockets, or cells, that insulate a human in cold water. But that insulation effect only works for only a few minutes when the water is close to freezing.

Michael Strano and Jacopo Buongiorno, two chemical engineering researchers at MIT, have discovered that if you fill the little air pockets with heavy, inert gases like argon or xenon, you can extend the amount of time the suit retains its insulation properties, and thus dive times for the humans wearing them in frigid water (48 degrees Fahrenheit in their paper) from minutes to perhaps three hours.

As they illustrate in their paper, the process involves sticking the suit in a sealed container about the size of a beer keg and then pumping it full of gas for a day or so.

“Our process is unique in that it modifies an existing wetsuit, making it demonstrably more insulating. So far, there are no tradeoffs with respect to comfort, flexibility, dexterity, etc.  So the technology appears promising,” Strano told Defense One over email.

“The next phase of our research will examine the human factor for this technology,” he said. “We've demonstrated a record low in thermal conductivity for neoprene, an important advance for sure. But the next step is to conduct field trials,” meaning it’s time to collect more detailed measurements about how well the suit works on humans.

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